If you’ve ever clicked on the top sellers list for headphones on Amazon, you’ve probably seen some TaoTronics products.
Along with Cowin, Brainwavz, Mpow, and others…TaoTronics specializes in low cost products produced in China and sold through local distribution. Some of their products have even received the vaunted “Amazon’s choice” designation, ensuring their continued domination of the best-selling charts.
I put aside my skepticism and picked up a couple of these cheap headphones to see how they stack up against the big names in the market.
In the case of the BH046's, I’m glad I did.
The TaoTronics TT-BH046 sells for between $80 and $90 online, and it recently went through a branding change at the beginning of May 2019.
It now sports a new TaoTronics swirled T logo and the name “Soundsurge 46.” But whether you receive an older model with the original “TT” logo or the newer pair like I did, it seems like they’re essentially the same headphones.
I think Soundsurge 46 is a much better name, and hopefully that’s a sign that TaoTronics is moving away from their confusing mess of warehouse-manifest-inspired letter-and-number product names.
I’ll call the headphones the 46's from now on.
At this price, the 46’s feature list is packed. They support both Bluetooth wireless and standard 3.5mm connections. They have active noise canceling powered by a built-in rechargeable battery that lasts for 15–20 hours depending on the volume. They include a big hard shell case, an analog audio cable, a usb cable, and an airline adapter. And they have a premium design inspired by a few other products.
Usually, I expect a product with a low price and huge feature set to get most things wrong. But TaoTronics somehow nailed a lot of it.
The only thing you might not love, depending on your personal taste, is the sound quality.
I don’t recommend using these with the ANC turned off. Like many other active pairs, the 46’s sound signature is built around the active cancellation mode. Powering on the noise cancelling also activates some internal DSP correction that helps overcome some of the flaws in the sound signature and accounts for the “anti-noise” produced by the ANC system.
Without ANC, the 46’s sound lifeless, muddled, and bland. There’s a little bit of action in the bass, but everything else is unexciting and withdrawn. It’ll do in a pinch if your battery dies, but it’s not a great listening experience.
With ANC on, the 46’s internal corrrection turns these into a typical-sounding consumer headphone…at least, for how consumer headphones sounded five years ago.
Mainstream audio has come a long way over the last half-decade. Current models of Beats, Bose, and Sony products all have flatter sounds than previous iterations. Yes, there’s still some gentle emphasis in the bass and some smoothed-out treble, but not even Apple’s Beats juggernaut pumps out the massive hyped bass response it used to be known for.
I know that’s still their reputation, but measurements and listening tests don’t lie.
The TaoTronics 46’s ignore all that modern sound design thinking in favor of being a warm, thumpy, aggressive headphone that’s almost too dark for its own good. Almost. They have a heavily sculpted signature with powerful bass, slightly thick midrange, and just enough treble detail that you can hear it.
If you’re basshead, you’ll think these sound just fine. But if you’re an audiophile, critical listener, or otherwise like a bright/detailed headphone, these aren’t for you.
TaoTronics doesn’t shy away from this in their marketing. They mention powerful bass in their product pages and don’t really talk about the rest of the audio.
Subbass, midbass, and high bass are all thick, punchy, and boomy. The midrange is warm and slightly muffled, with the gentle sound I associate with older Bose products or turning up my subwoofer too high on my first “good” set of speakers. Treble is audible, but rolled off enough that you’ll never get fatigued.
Cymbal hits are less sharp/clean and more…smooshed.
But I hesitate to call this sound outright bad. It’s not all that detailed. It’s not anywhere near neutral. But it sure is fun! And it sounds enough like the original audio that I’m not aggressively horrified.
One summer years ago, my dad and I were on a beach trip, and the small beach town we visited just had a chain multiplex cinema dropped into it three days earlier. Some unexpected rain hit the beach that day, making the outside unpleasant. It was the middle of the week and the theater was empty, so of course we went there all day and watched movies.
The sound system wasn’t calibrated at all, and was set to its out of the box settings. Bass was rumbly and powerful and the seats shook with every explosion, and voices were tinged with a little too much bass warmth.
We had a great time.
These headphones have that sort of sound.
The ear pads on these headphones are some of the best I’ve ever experienced, at any price range.
The only hint of any cheapness is that the insides of the ear hole are coated in the same low-cost leatherette you’ll find on a lot of bargain basement pairs. But the rest of the pad is clad in soft, nice fake leather material. And the foam inside is a thick, deep, plush memory foam.
With a wide range of adjustment, exceptional ear pads, and a good amount of headband padding, the comfort level here is on par with just about anything else you could buy. The metal frame means they clamp a bit on first wear and don’t quite disappear on the head, and my particular head develops a hotspot on top after an hour or so if I don’t position them well, but…
This is the bottom level of comfort that all headphones should aspire to. If this cheaper pair can do it, the more expensive pairs have no excuse.
Imagine if you will, a headphone with a design cherry-picked from other best-sellers. The headband of the old NAD Viso HP50. The ear cup supports of a Bang and Olufson model. A look for the pads that combines elements of Beyerdynamic and Fostex.
That’s the TaoTronics 46, in a nutshell. Picking it up is like holding a cobbled together list of parts from other headphones.
Fortunately, they’re built like a tank. Everything here is solid, and way more of it is metal than you’d ever expect at this price point. The adjustment sliders clack up and down with a steady thump. The cup hinges have no creaks. The cups themselves feel solid and dense.
Like the insides of the ear pad holes, cheapness does creep in a little. The TaoTronics logos on the sides of the cups have a weird rough texture to them, and feel like they were screened on with the same machine that companies used to print low-cost DVD labels in the nineties.
My favorite original design touch is the material used on the backs of the cups. It’s got an interesting color-shifting look to it. In most light it appears to have a gray color, but take a closer look and it reveals a dark brown. It’s nice and classy.
$300+ headphones are often not built this solidly. I’m thinking about certain pairs that rhyme with Beats Studio 3, for example. You know, the pair that uses hollow plastic for the ear cup supports.
The design might not be anything original, and they do stick out a little bit from the head while worn, but the build here will spoil you on other pairs and maybe even make you question everything.
Like the build quality, the active noise cancelling here is much better than I expected. No, it’s not anywhere near on-par with the Bose and Sony models that dominate the market, but it’s still totally okay. In fact, I like the cancellation here more than on some other lower cost ANC pairs I’ve tried like the Sony WH-CH700N. It’s more powerful and isolating than that pair.
It has a little bit of white noise when no music is playing, and I feel a little bit of pressure on my ears, but nothing too crazy. It handles low frequencies much better than high frequencies, just like many other older ANC systems. And it has enough of the “wow” factor of the more expensive pairs that it made me remember why I used to love ANC headphones and preferred them when I was working in coffee shops.
The power switch for the ANC system is independent of the Bluetooth power button, so you’ll have to remember to turn it on and off manually. This could be a little bit of a headache, because if you leave it turned on and take the headphones off, it’ll just keep slowly draining your battery.
The battery charge port is Micro USB, which some folks hate but I’m fine with. The headphones charge quickly even from a standard USB port, and will pull more power if plugged into a cell phone quick charger.
These have the now-industry-standard fast charge capability, delivering 2 hours of playback off the first five minutes of charging.
There’s a built-in mic for phone calls, but it’s a bit noisy and unremarkable. I didn’t record a test, because they spent so little money and energy on it that I’m giving them the same courtesy. This is not the pair to buy for clear call quality, but it works fine in a pinch.
Unfortunately, the microphone doesn’t work when you use these in wired mode, so you can’t use these as a headset with a game console controller by default. However, the non-proprietary 3.5mm jack means these will accept third party boom microphone cables like the V-moda boom pro.
Bluetooth range is an acceptable 30 feet through walls, but fancy codec fans out there will be bummed as this pair only supports standard SBC encoding. Also, the amplifier isn’t as powerful as in some other Bluetooth headphones. The lower end of the volume range is quiet enough to be useless, but I still found a comfy listening volume just above 50 percent.
I like the outside of the included hard case, but the headphones are secured inside by a big stupid stretchy velcro strap. Also, the headphones only barely fit in the case and the pads get squished in there a little bit. It’s obviously a generic case that was retrofitted to work with these headphones. I’ve thought about cutting out the strap.
For $80 or $90, these are quite competent…particularly in the build, ear pad, and ANC departments. If you’re okay with a thick, boomy sound, and like the way these look, then I’d encourage you to check them out. They’re really good for the price, and fancier than I’d expect for the money.
TaoTronics makes another popular wireless ANC headphone that got a new model this year. It’s called the BH060 and it borrows design elements from the Bose and Sony models that lead the market. Also, it’s even cheaper at $60. I’ll have a review of them out soon and I’ll drop the link in here at the end of this article.
A spoiler: if you’re on the fence about buying the 60’s or the 46’s, the 46’s sound better.
Update: Here’s my review of the 60’s. In two words: Oh no.